Bukayo Saka is the playground footballer Arsenal and the PL needs

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Just when we’d reached the point where we’d assumed Arsenal would draw every game from now until the end of time, Bukayo Saka showed up to remind us there is still quality and excitement in the Gunners’ squad.

Mikel Arteta’s team had drawn four on the bounce after a New Year’s Day victory over Manchester United, the sort of run that makes you think ‘maybe this is our life now’, and a goalless first half against Newcastle will have brought some of the same fears.

However, after Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s opener, a bit of quickfire genius from Bukayo Saka put the result beyond doubt.

Saka was never meant to be a left-back; the Englishman’s first few games under Unai Emery last season were predominantly on the wing, and that may well be where his long-term future lies.

Just a couple of minutes after the opener, and with Newcastle reeling, he went through Valentino Lazaro as if he wasn’t there.

Lazaro never stood a chance.

 

There’s something of the playground footballer in Saka with this manoeuvre: the trust in one’s own abilities to the point that it’s not about ignoring any team-mates’ calls for a pass but rather not even needing to check where they are.

When you believe in yourself and haven’t had enough setbacks to consider yourself fallible, why wouldn’t you try something like this?

There’s always a gap between awareness of your own powers and fear of the consequence of failure, and Saka is very much still in the sweet spot.

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It makes sense, too. If you’ve shown you have the quality to break into the Arsenal team as a teenager, you’re hardly going to look at any individual situation and think ‘no, I’m not up to this’.

Lazaro is just one tiny obstacle in the way of what was always an inevitable conclusion: if this results in the Austrian becoming forever known as that guy who had his pants pulled down on live TV, then so be it.

Saka’s reaction after the game tells you all you need to know about this; that little “whoops” is proof enough that the enjoyment isn’t a static thing, but rather a state which encompasses the moment itself and the same event every time he watches it back. It’s the equivalent of Bart Simpson pausing the clip of the Krusty the Clown live show at the moment Ralph Wiggum’s heart breaks in two.

This is a man who sees football as a pure form of entertainment, and what’s the point in putting on a show if you can’t be part of the audience yourself?

It’s altogether too rare for a footballer to inadvertently remind us they got into this game because they were once like us, watching from the comfort of their sofa and enjoying the skilful players who embarrassed opponents just as much as – or even more than – the clinical goalscorers.

Topping the charts is one thing, but there’s nothing quite as rewarding as owning an opponent so thoroughly that it hurts them to even look you in the eye afterwards; that you can destroy them all over again with something as minor as a smile or a wink.

There may well be a few moments over the course of the remainder of the season where Bukayo Saka is found wanting at left-back, prompting criticism from people who are willing to forget that’s not his natural position.

However, we should also be wary that a time may arrive not too long from now when he’s too efficient at the back, potentially sapping attacking creativity like the moment we saw against Newcastle.

For now, we ought to cherish a player who doesn’t need a licence to entertain, but instead just does what he wants to see and trusts others will share that mindset. It turns out he’s more perceptive in this regard than he has any right to be.

By Tom Victor


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